Verbs are one of the hardest and most important parts of English grammar. The lessons our children learn about their first verbs like to be, to go, and to have form the basis of their understanding of how verbs work in English. That is why it makes me so angry when they are taught poorly. Use this guide to understand what verbs are and how you can effectively teach them to your child. Starting your child off with a strong understanding of what verbs are and how they work will help your child succeed in their future English studies.
What is a Verb?
A verb is a word that expresses an action or a state of being. For example, in “she kicks the ball,” kicks is the verb telling us what action the girl did. Or, in “Mom is angry,” is tells us that Mom is currently in a state of anger.
Why Do Verbs Change?
In English, verbs change depending on the subject (I am, he is, you are) and on the verb tense. A verb tense relates to the time it occurs in. So verbs change to help readers know who did the action and when that action happened.
How Many Tenses Does English Have?
If you ask a linguist, it’s two (past and present). More generally, people think English has three tenses (past, present, and future). As far as language learners are concerned though, there are a whopping 12 tenses:
- Simple Past
- Past Perfect
- Past Continuous
- Past Perfect Continuous
- Simple Present
- Present Perfect
- Present Continuous
- Present Perfect Continuous
- Simple Future
- Future Perfect
- Future Continuous
- Future Perfect Continuous
What is an Infinitive?
In English, an infinitive is the base form of a verb. If you want to look up a verb in a dictionary, you will be looking up the infinitive. Usually, these infinitive verbs are preceded by to. So in the sentence “I run with John,” run is the verb, and the infinitive of this verb is “to run.”
Oftentimes, teachers skip over teaching infinitives. I have found this is a mistake, especially for students coming from a language where you do not change verbs. Understanding that “to run” is an infinitive will help your child better understand why “to” is used when you have two verbs in a row. For example, in the sentence, “I like to help,” to help is an infinitive. It will also help children understand that words that look different have the same meaning because they are part of the same verb. For example, is, am, are, was, and were all fall under the verb to be. Finally, getting them thinking about infinitives early on will help with verbs where the infinitive is not the same as the more common conjugations (to be = is, am, are). For all of these reasons, teaching children the infinitive form of verbs will help them understand English grammar better than their peers.
How Should I Start Teaching Verbs?
The obvious starting point is Simple Present (I run.). For young children just beginning to learn English, Simple Present allows them to express basic ideas and learn general vocabulary. A strong basis in Simple Present will help later on when the verb tenses begin to become more complicated.
Next, I would move into Present Continuous as it is easy for children to understand the concept of doing something right now. It is also easy for children to change the verb correctly (I run. → I am running.). By the point they get to Present Continuous, your child probably already has a strong understanding of Present Simple and the To Be verbs. Adding “ing” and the is, am, are, shouldn’t be too difficult for them.
Future Simple and Past Simple
From there, I usually work on both Future Simple and Past Simple. This grammar lets my kids tell me about what they did yesterday and what they will do tomorrow. Future Simple is really easy, and just requires you to remind them to add “will” to the present simple that they already know. Past Simple will be a challenge. Depending on what their language background is, the past tenses may range anywhere from annoying but manageable, to a life-long quest to master.
The Next Steps
After these four tenses, we get into more difficult English verb tenses. As this is an article for beginners, I will leave it here. Most of your focus should go towards making your child as confident with Present Simple, Present Continuous, Simple Past, and Simple Future as possible. Strong understandings of these tenses will make their lives so much easier later on when they need to learn the more complicated verb tenses. As well, these four tenses are the most commonly used. Without a strong mastery of these tenses, your child cannot hope to be fluent in English.
How Do I Teach Verbs to My Child?
Teaching Is, Am, Are: Expression of State Verbs
As we said earlier, verbs are expressions of state and action words. When I start teaching verbs, I try to address both of these in their most basic forms. To teach expressions of state, I start with “I am,” “You are,” and “He/She is.” You want your child to have these verbs and pronouns paired in their heads, so teach it early and reinforce them often.
Now have them practice basic sentences around topics that they find interesting. Easy sentences like:
I am a boy.
You are Mom.
He is Dad.
It is blue.
Children love to describe the world around them. As they get more comfortable with making sentences, start having them ask and answer questions:
Are they blue? Yes, they are.
Is he old? No, he isn’t.
Are you hungry? Yes, I am.
This whole process of learning basic is, am, are sentences and questions can take weeks of work. It may be tempting, but please don’t rush! Children will learn at their own pace, and for some children, it’ll take longer than others. If you push ahead before they are ready, they might not fully understand the concept. Strong foundations are always important in English. Shortcuts early on will only cost more time later on.
Teaching Action Verbs
At this point, your child probably knows some basic vocabulary, so now is the perfect time to teach action words that they can use with that vocabulary. Verbs like run, walk, jump, and swim are all good to pair with animal or people vocabulary that your child already knows. Using action verbs, we can make basic sentences like:
The cat jumps.
As they get better, you can progress to “can” sentences:
I can run.
The fish can swim.
We can jump.
As with the expression of state verbs above, you will want to progress to a point where they can ask and answer questions with action verbs too:
Can you run? Yes, I can.
Can a shark fly? No, it can’t.
Can I run? Yes, you can.
How Do I Practice This With My Kids?
Just like with phonics, when you teach verbs, you want to make sure that you are teaching them in a fun and methodical way. So, think about what you want them to learn, and then work your way there step-by-step. For young kids, please don’t use worksheets to teach them. These are generally not fun for kids, and they do not help them learn English grammar. Here are some ideas you can use instead to think about how to teach your child verbs at home:
- If you are working on letters, it is nice to have them write out the sentences that they are learning. But instead of making them write it over and over, you could make it into a journal or a book of things your child likes, with drawings to go with each sentence. It shouldn’t be a chore. It should be fun and engaging for your child.
- If they cannot write yet, then no worries. start by working on their lettering. If they are not old enough, do some exercises that they like that will help with their hand-eye coordination like blocks or play-doh.
- Practice verbs by working them into your everyday routine. Ask them how they feel today or whether they like this kind of food.
- Play board games where you can move forward by answering or asking a question.
- Play Simon Says to practice action sentences.
- Encourage whatever hobbies your child has by including an English component. You could learn cooking verbs while cooking with your child. You can watch TV shows and ask about how different characters are feeling.
- Use English songs that teach the sentence pattern that they are learning.
Use your imagination and think about what kinds of activities your child likes to do. If you are looking for inspiration, you can take a look here for some games I like to use with my kids. Just remember to keep in mind, what do I want my child to learn with this activity, and how can I teach them this in a way they will enjoy.
Learn Verbs with The Learner’s Nook
If you are interested in learning more about verbs in English, we have plenty of verb resources at our Verbs in English page.
Verbs are one of the most important and trickiest parts for people learning English. These first steps with basic verbs will allow your child to begin to express themselves in English. You want to use this early age to encourage them to use English while they learn about the world around them and ingrain it as a lifelong habit. Make sure you think about what your child needs to know and work at it every day. Don’t rely on worksheets and busywork, instead make sure your child enjoys the experience of using English as a way to explore and learn.